The world lives in a garden. Within it is found human intention and vegetative indifference; order and chaos; a portion of space, bounded by mental definition, inside which time unfolds, gathering matter into the forms of leaves and fruits, then breaking them back down into particles. In Emmalea Russo’s G, the garden also becomes a place to observe the evolution of language, the overlay of mind on the work of the body, and the theater of relationship, where two people have disparate experiences, although they are side by side.
Russo almost entirely avoids the conventional poet-in-the-garden stance in this book, her first. I say “almost” because she does allow the reader to glimpse, in occasional brief slivers, the progression of a season from spring through fall. But there are no sensuous swelling tomatoes in this book, no tender seedlings, no pat lessons about humility or patience drawn by a thoughtful poet-gardener embodied in a stable “I.” This is a project of a different kind—an abstract investigation of mind and language, where the garden is a kind of whiteboard, and the writer tries out different linguistic formulae on its surface.
From the beginning, the book announces its intention to tease and tweak the units of language down to the level of the individual letter:
I engenders I enters and
I Greet Greets one Gar
Dens G o Grammars G of a
Group of Growths as:
It’s wonderful to enter and engender alongside Russo as she cultivates this field of activated language. The letter “G” begins here to take on its role, which will expand and refract throughout the book, as a variable standing for many things (gentle, ground, grow, gate, germination, glitches) as well as a unit that can combine with others (G + o = Go) or remain, inscrutably, alone.
In that way it’s like “I,” which can be a self-engendering “group of growths” as much as a singular self. The reader begins to come alive to the possibilities: “hemisphere” contains “hem I sphere,” and “our” becomes “O U R,” or “oh you are,” just as a shared experience may break down into a realization that the mind of another person is ultimately unknowable.
On each verso page of the book, as in the passage above, Russo presents a block of relatively disjointed text; the recto pages are more fluid, though still driven more by sound-play and layers of meaning than conventional syntax:
Because I am pulling from the root. Because the route involves a tidal wave dream. The work gets drenched either way. Teeming landtime passes and in passing we crave it. Grounded. One might have the idea that a person is ground. Footing?
The obvious formal question involves the relationship between these two sides of the text, and there isn’t one simple answer. Though various binaries—mind and body, figure and ground, magic and science—are at play in the book, none of these is easily represented by its bifurcated form. But the left-hand pages sometimes read like a destabilized version of the vocabulary on the right: “hinterland” on the recto becomes “hinter countried G” on the verso, and “rows and rows of mishap” on the recto is
Rowth sticks change her G
on the verso.
Of course, we read left to right, so the verso pages may be seen as chaotic introductions to the more orderly recto pages. Or the two pages may represent the two hemispheres of the brain, one logical and one associative (epilepsy is mentioned as an “influence” in Russo’s acknowledgements). Or the verso may be an evolved, composted, or corrupted remake of the recto. (The font used on the verso does, in fact, suggest computer code.)
The scientific and digital-age notion that everything is divisible into tiny units (“G be more like a diagram...Highest to lowest G”) is one of many cross-pollinating ideas. If the mind wants to group and comprehend, the world or garden may not always accommodate: “G keeps growing. G is now bigger than the figure and the ground.”
Ultimately, Russo seems to suggest that “no reality exists apart from the mind” and that “an impulse to make tangible” is just that, a subjective impulse, itself impossible to touch.
G’s energetic visual play (likening the letter G to an O “divided into hemispheres” and possessing a “shelf”) and her wordplay (“sew” and “sow”) is a constant, inventive weather. But the larger movement of the book involves the growing realization that G is not only garden, but a person named G. He is a co-gardener and the object of the speaker’s troubled affection:
An inland person and a coastal. We two plus land. I’m working something out. I’ll do whatever I can. We say the previous two lines simultaneously.
The tenor of this relationship—and the attendant questions about self and other, not to mention shared work and power dynamics—remains mostly in the background as the long first section of Gproceeds through 64 verso-recto pairs (later revealed to echo the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching, another influence). Somewhere in the 30s, this reader started wondering where else the book might go and flipped to the back, where I discovered a second section in essay form. Now, knowing this awaited, I fought the urge to jump ahead and read the prose, an urge Russo seems to acknowledge a few pages later when she writes “the tension of wanting to close the circle.”
I’m glad I didn’t, though, even if 64 verso-recto pairs might arguably be a few too many. Russo occasionally breaks her own form, as on pp. 54-55 where the two sides carry the same short phrase (“ONE FOLDS LAND OVER LAND”), and this answers a desire for change and foregrounds form just as content starts to become more primary. Russo is taking us on a journey here, not just fulfilling a predestined container, so it’s worth sticking with her as she continues to push the evolution of her materials.
And she’s right to put the essay at book’s end. On the one hand, it’s gratifying in its confirmation of themes and meanings that the reader has likely gleaned while traveling through section one. On the other hand, the prose section approaches these ideas much more explicitly, adding background that changes the understanding of all that went before. There is thematic revelation, for example linking hex signs painted on barns with the hexagrams of the I Ching.
There’s autobiographical background, too, and the relationship with the person called G turns out to be much more central to the book than it seemed in section one—as does the speaker’s own search for healing and spiritual meaning.
“I was able to start making things after shimmying out from under G...G was not simply a weight that I might shimmy out from. G seeped like the vast expanse of the weather (an element) into me. I have to ask good questions.”
Is this too clear a glimpse behind the curtain? Can the opacity of section one maintain its integrity when section two is so much more transparent about the circumstances surrounding the book’s creation?
In the end, Russo wants us to understand—to “close the circle”—despite her fondness for undermining the reader’s expectations. Like a garden, the book eventually must wind down into something like resolution, the “Octobering of / A-Z,” as she puts it. And like a garden, the book is a process. I’m guessing Russo’s next book, due out in 2019, will be an entirely different formal and thematic experiment, well worth attending to.
Erika Howsare is the author of How Is Travel a Folded Form?, a finalist for the Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Award, published in 2018 by Saddle Road Press. Her previous book, co-written with Kate Schapira, is FILL: A Collection, published in 2016 by Trembling Pillow Press. Her sixth chapbook will appear from Dancing Girl Press in 2020, and she served as a co-editor at Horse Less Press for eleven years. Poetry has appeared or is forthcoming at Fence, Verse, Conjunctions, and other journals, and she has published reviews, interviews and essays at the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Taproot, and The Millions. She holds an MFA from Brown University and lives in rural Virginia, where she works as a journalist and posts photos of the ground at erikahowsare.com.